Monday, June 13, 2016

Default Mode Network Continuum

For a few years now I've been trying to understand the function of the default mode network, a brain circuit that is most active when a person is doing nothing.  As its name implies, it keeps things going while task-oriented brain circuits are not in use.  At first I understood it to be important in skill learning, especially when a new skill is practiced enough to become habitual, thus allowing the default mode network to take over what a task-oriented circuit needed to support before.  Then I started reading about how it's involved in mind-wandering and in the more-problematic state of thinking: rumination.  This constant and negative focus on one's faults and misdeeds is an element of depression, one that seems to precede the onset of an episode. I've also read that the default mode network is involved in creativity, allowing someone to link seemingly unrelated ideas together in unique ways as the mind wanders about.  And if all that wasn't confusing enough, I'm now reading about how it is involved in meditation.

I highly recommend James Kingsland's book about meditation and brain function, Siddhartha's Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment.  He considers the default mode network extensively in the book, summarizing evidence that meditation not only decreases activity in this circuit, but also helps a person learn to control whether or not their default mode network is active. This idea appeals to me, because I believe that there are some benefits to allowing one's mind to wander, but it would be great to be able to determine when and for how long that happens.

As knitters we know that there are some projects that require focused attention and others that we use to pass the time or multitask while watching TV or reading a book.  I use a project that promotes mind wandering in the morning while I drink coffee and come to terms with the day ahead. I had been thinking that this was a good idea, but now I'm beginning to wonder if I should be spending more time on projects that require focused attention, and that perhaps doing so would help strengthen those circuits. Perhaps then I won't be so prone to distraction in other tasks. Kingsland makes the point that one of the benefits of meditation for promoting mental health is to strengthen the task-oriented networks, so why can't we do the same thing with knitting a demanding pattern?  Can knitting be a form of meditation?

When I first attempted to make Martina Behm's Fractal Danger, I found it very challenging.  This was partly because I began the project during a knit-along at the delightful Alamitos Bay Yarn Company, with lots of people I had just met, plus a glass of wine.  And it was just after a very challenging semester and my default mode network was probably the only one capable of any activity.  Once I had the initial section done, it became rote knitting and required no thought whatsoever.  I was so glad to have its steady company while waiting for cross-country flights, and it was nearly done by the time I got home from vacation.
Fractal Danger
I have recently found myself working on Hitchhiker, another Behm pattern.  This one took about 8 stitches to become a mindless project and has completely engaged my default mode network.  It is, however, very appealing because something interesting happens every eight rows.  I have had trouble putting it down, although I did reach a point this weekend when I craved something more challenging.
Hitchhiker using  Berroco's  Boboli Lace on size 4 needles
Not to worry, something more challenging was waiting on another set of needles.  This is Butterfly/Papillon, a pattern by Marin Melchior.  I saw it on display a few weeks ago at Creative Fibers and was completely inspired.  It calls for fingering weight yarn, and I had ample quantities of some that I had dyed myself, left-over from Casapinka's Purpleplexy.

The first of 3 sections of Butterfly.  The yarn is Valley Yarns Charlemont.
I wasn't sure that those colors would work for Butterfly, but as it grows I'm increasingly motivated to continue. The pattern is so complex that I need to have it in front of me constantly. Default mode network doesn't have much of a chance here: 

There are 5 pages of this...

The original use of those colors was for Purpleplexy, in which I used the blue variations for the daisy stitch detail that is such a beautiful feature of this shawl.  

All of these projects are primarily composed of garter stitch, but they are not all easy, by any means. I plan to continue to grapple with understanding the default mode network, mostly while I simultaneously work on Hitchhiker and finish Siddhartha's Brain!